“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”   ~Peter Drucker

Humans are funny creatures.

We live in this globalised network of overlapping, integrated (mostly) and interdependent groups, making and eating things like garlic infused olive oil beads made using emulsion techniques and earning our food by doing things like betting against positive economic outcomes.

We’re also in space now, not quite en masse, but we’ve got a robotic spacecraft that has now left the solar system and there’s always someone in near earth orbit. Truly spectacular!

There is now no place on Earth farther than about 2 days travel and our numbers look more like rodent or invertebrate numbers than mammals!

Still, we’re the same creature that, only a few hundreds of generations ago, hung out with their family and a few friends (who were probably cousins etc), hunting and gathering on the savannah’s of east Africa. In our lifetimes, we probably would never meet more than a thousand people and would only interact regularly with a few dozen. Still, these social networks needed sufficient cognitive capacity to navigate that few of us likely had the excess capacity to manage much more in terms of social interaction.

We were all working in a sweet spot though. Obviously food irregularities, various climate shifts, disease, accident and violence all made our ‘sweet spot’ a somewhat mixed bag, but in terms of what our genes were expecting, it was spot on.

Fast forward to today and things are definitely different. A few years ago, I worked it out that, even though I’m relatively introverted, I’d probably met 500 or more people every year. As a teacher, there was pretty much an automatic 300 with a new crop of students and many of their parents and carers, not to mention that teaching overseas tends to have a high turnover as people head home or to other places.

All told, I’ve probably met well over 10,000 people in my relatively short lifetime. I can’t even remember all their names, let alone useful facts about them, but that makes sense, it’s at least 10x the likely number of people you could meet in a lifetime in the ancestral environment!

It is quite simply an overwhelming number of people. If I were to try to keep in touch with everyone I’ve ever met, I’d be writing ‘Hi how’s it going’ tweets for just over a week without sleep, going on one minute per tweet. Not really viable if I’m going to actually do anything in my life or have deeper relationships. Frankly, I’m going to spend more time on my marriage and my family relationships and forgo continued contact with most of those 10,000.

So what’s a leader to do?

If you lead a school, lets say, you have a minimum of 30 staff and 300 students and perhaps as many as 150 staff and 1500 students! You really need to know what’s going on with, at the very minimum, each of your staff (or at least the senior leaders). Knowing each of the students by name becomes easier the longer you’re in a school and you get to know families. Your staff help you keep up to date with what’s going on for all of those families because they keep up to date with their students. So, it’s a chain, or web of interconnectedness with you at the center.

This is very much like an elder in a tribe. You know the lay of the land, you know how people tend to behave, a large measure of what drives them and on and on. You’ve really got to understand people in order for your network to function at all, let alone well. But understanding is not enough, you’ve got to be proactively engaging with your staff, asking open questions, enabling them and helping them develop so that your effectiveness is amplified through them.

If you’re not building your staff by listening to them and helping them help themselves, and continuing that conversation with each of them, you won’t be able to look outside of the school with any confidence or efficacy. Your mind will be full of worries and what ifs.

In Getting Things Done, David Allen shares this concept that a human mind is for having ideas and conversations, not juggling organisation, schedules and information. If things are taken care of properly, as in you are engaging with your staff and listening carefully, globally, then you will trust that they’re fine and be able to be fully present whatever you’re doing without any nagging feelings of anxiety and doubt relating to your staff.

It’s the same thing with families. Listen well and often, really engage with them and you’ll just know that they’ve got your back. You’ll be more successful at whatever you’re doing outside the family because you’ll be able to be more present. It’s that ‘behind every good man is an even greater woman’ and the like. Highly functional families listen carefully and deeply. It’s the only way to truly know your people. And you’ve got to keep listening carefully, because no one stays static. But you knew that already.

If you want to know your people, and trust them, you’ve got to listen to them. It’s the best way to really do it well. There might be a hierarchy with more than 30, in which case it becomes more difficult to truly know all of your staff. You might have to make do with ensuring you know those who report directly to you with them in turn knowing those who report to them. It can work if you all know how to listen well and actually do the work of listening.

Unfortunately too many find themselves in situations where they don’t listen, for whatever reason, perhaps because they don’t feel the other is listening as well. Well, you can’t make someone listen. It’s not a transitive verb. But the best way to draw them out into considering listening properly is to…?

…you guessed it, listen to them.

Who do you listen to? Who listens to you?

How do you know the listening is really happening?

So how do you listen well?  

Good questions all and we’ll take a look at them in the next post.

Got a comment? Have some experience working with a boss or employee who was a great listener? How about a horrible listener? I’d love to hear your stories. Just comment below!